Locarno Festival - A Festival for All Seasons

Alina Birzache reports on the competition films of the festival in Locarno 2018
Ecumenical Jury Locarno 2018

The Ecumenical Jury Locarno 2018 on the seats of the Piazza Grande, from left: Dietmar Adler, Baldassare Scolari, Alina Birzache, and Anna Piazza (© Locarno Festival / Massimo Pedrazzini)

A hallmark of this year’s Locarno Festival, aside from the tropical weather, was the high proportion of films in the competition featuring female protagonists. The Festival’s charismatic artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, acknowledged in a private conversation with our Ecumenical Jury that this was more the result of serendipity than design, but it nonetheless reflected trends in international cinema. During the 12 days of this cinematic feast, gripping portraits of women appeared on the screen, from coming-of-age to end-of-life stories.

That strong female characters are now commonplace in world cinema is perhaps a reflection of modern life: a witness to female creativity that is empowering as well as necessary. We often take for granted that gender equality exists but societies across the globe are still shaken by shameful scandals that remind us that we are not quite yet where we would like ourselves to be. In this connection the Festival took the opportunity to sign the Programming Pledge for Parity and Inclusion in Cinema Festivals, the second A-list competition to do so after Cannes. The Pledge served as a reminder that, even if the international competition included a wealth of prominent female characters, only three of the directors were women.

This speaks of a greater problem in the industry whereby female filmmakers still face a challenge to obtain backing for their projects, hampering their ability to compete in festival selections. In spite of this, of the 25 awards across all sections, 12 were won by women, which, in the words of Carlo Chatrian ‘confirmed that Locarno is a festival where one plans the future’.

Ecumenical Prize for “Sibel”

In this context the award of the Ecumenical Prize to a film featuring a captivating female character and co-directed by a woman filmmaker - Çağla Zencirci who collaborates with her real-life partner, Guillaume Giovanetti - became doubly meaningful. Sibel (which also received the FIPRESCI award) tells the story of a young woman living in a conservative community in the majestic mountains of Turkey’s Black Sea region where there is preserved an ancient whistling language. She is no ordinary woman: mute, she can only communicate in this whistling language. Although marginalized in the community by her disability, she enjoys greater freedom from social and religious conventions than any of her peers, symbolised by the absence of a headscarf and her father’s permission to carry a gun. Sibel’s fight for social recognition takes the form of a quest to find a wolf in the forest which has prevented women in the community reaching a mountain where they light fires as part of an ancestral fertility rite designed to ensure the birth of male children.

Supported by this mythological narrative and enhanced by beautiful cinematography, the film could have been just an appealing take on a rather conventional coming-of-age story. Yet there is a dramatic subversion of the classic tale of an initiation rite where humans need to kill a wild beast in order to prove themselves. During her long hours of anxious hunting in the forest, dominated by the disturbing sound of her rapid breaths, Sibel slowly comes to the realization that the fearsome wolf is actually dead. As she gathers evidence to support this conclusion, she encounters a stranger in the forest: Ali, who is wanted by the authorities for his unconventional views on military service. As an outsider, he also performs a dual role: he helps her to discover her own womanhood as well as the alarming revelation that the ‘wolf’ bones she has been collecting are actually of human origin. A more sinister reality becomes apparent: the mortally dangerous creatures in the forest were in reality men from her own community who had performed an honour killing; the wolf being a fictional device to control the women’s movements.

Sibel subtly glides from a personal quest for social recognition to a wider struggle for social reformation.  As such the young protagonist is pitted against the patriarchal structures of her community. From the outset, her village’s customs and superstitions, its codes of honour and shame, conspire to supress any manifestation of differences that would undermine them. Strikingly, while Sibel’s father is depicted as a supporter of her freedoms, some of the most intransigent villagers she faces are women. Although Sibel selflessly helps with the community’s agricultural tasks, she appears condemned to live as a spinster, and as a result is beaten and ostracised by other women who strive to conform to the roles ascribed to them as wives and mothers, and who never question the conventional wisdom that happiness is God’s gift of a male child. In stark contrast, Sibel stands for those values of female education and freedom of choice which could ultimately lead to emancipation.

Although the film’s story is given roots and enriched by local traditions, the remote village setting is a microcosm; it could represent any society that stifles individual expression. In a visually impressive sequence filmed at night, Sibel stands on a summit and lights that fire that has eluded the women of her community for decades, but in so doing she reinterprets the ritual as a call for the recognition of women’s value and dignity. This is demonstrated in a powerful late scene where Sibel walks alongside her sister Fatma, who has been ostracised by her community for her relationship with Sibel. Whenever Fatma lowers her eyes in shame Sibel responds by lifting up her chin. This simple gesture has an immediate effect on those women present and reverberates beyond the screen.

Commendation for “Diane”

Due to the high quality of the films in competition, the Ecumenical Jury also decided to award two commendations. The first went to another character-driven film led by a female protagonist. Similarities, however, stop here, since Kent Jones’s Diane introduces a completely different mood. From the lush vegetation of the Black Sea mountains in Sibel to the barren forests of a wintertime Massachussetts in Diane, we also sense a transition from the start of life to its waning. The septuagenarian Diane is not singled out by an exceptional destiny; on the contrary she appears to be an ordinary, kind-hearted person who keeps the soup kitchen running, visits the sick, including her drug-addicted son, while attending the ever increasing number of funerals of her relatives and friends. She self-effacingly keeps to the routine of doing small tasks for others, always on the move across winding roads on her way to the next.

But there is an end to all roads, and a point at which we have to confront our life with all its past failings, when what we are becomes more important than what we do. There are clues in the film that Diane is a Christian, such as the crucifix next to her bed, but the rituals of religion are given little attention. The strength of Kent Jones’s film is the gentle way it allows us to glimpse Diane’s spiritual life, especially her struggle to come to terms with feelings of guilt and betrayal that she holds towards her son and dying cousin. Once her son conquers his drug addiction she is able to give herself more time and her attention turns inward. As she retreats into her memories the boundary blurs between dream and reality. The director’s use of the tradition of keeping a spiritual diary is a clever device through which we become privy to her explorations of the soul. Diane’s meditative spirituality, which strives to shed light on the shadowy corners of her soul, is light years away from those noisy practices such as speaking in tongues that her son embraces and seeks to force upon her.

The final sequence which marks a jump forward in time is particularly moving, evoking in a very short space what it feels like to be old, lonely, and struggling to remember what you need to do. But all her worries and commitments stop as the last sequence pauses time and only the thought of what is precious remains. We sense the arrival of peace as the camera pans upwards to capture the silent fall of snow from a wintry sky in a moment of transcendence.

…and for “A Land Imagined”

The second commendation went to Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined (also the recipient of the Golden Leopard). On a primary level it can be read as a film noir with strong elements of social realism. The subject is the disappearance in Singapore of a Chinese migrant worker, Wang, and the subsequent police investigation conducted by detective Lok. On this scaffolding the director superimposes a series of interconnected ethical, social and political layers occasioned by the peculiar situation of a city-state whose territory is the product of a continuous process of land reclamation. In this sense Singapore is a land that can literally take any shape that human imagination wishes to give it, but it is also a state built on sand, usually imported from other countries, thereby blurring borders and amalgamating identities. To turn the imagination into reality, the state relies on a vast number of migrant workers whose toil remains invisible to the world, whose identities are stolen together with their passports, and whose indebtedness to their masters will never end. Stuck indefinitely in this ‘imagined land’ their only escape is a world of dreams and virtual reality. They represent the unseen face of modern exploitation, generated by globalisation, which condemns them to live in a parallel world where identities are protean. The boundary between reality and dreams itself becomes porous as Lok tries to understand Wang as well as investigate his employer’s shady activities and night lives of migrant labourers. Drawing from his studies of East Asian Philosophy, Hua weaves together dreams, reality, and virtuality to impose a metaphysical layer on his story and open windows onto the interior world of those involved in modern slavery.

Attention to a number of other films

The high standard of the competition this year made the Jury’s work challenging.  Fortunately this report offers me the opportunity to draw attention to a number of other films that we particularly appreciated. Yolande Zauberman’s M (which was awarded the Special Jury Prize) is a harrowing documentary which exposes sexual abuse within a community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Shot mostly at night, it follows actor Menahem Lang who returns to the community where he was raped as a child as part of a process of coming to terms with a trauma that still blights his adult life. As he speaks candidly and painfully about his experiences, and meets other men willing to share their own stories of abuse, we become aware of the pervasive nature of this problem and the long-lasting physical, mental and spiritual damage that has been cast onto the victims. Against the background of similar scandals that have recently erupted in various religious communities, the documentary emphasises the difficulties that victims face in order to achieve resolution in societies dominated by patriarchal structures.


While M features most scenes filmed at night, Alberto Fasulo's Menocchio takes this aesthetic further, and makes chiaroscuro lighting and pictorial composition its forte. This device is used in order to contrast the luminous figure of 16th century miller and freethinker Domenico Scandella, nicknamed Menocchio, against the darkness of the dungeon where he was incarcerated by the Inquisition. The film is based on historic records of the trial, in this respect reminding us of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and his grotesque portrayal of inquisitors. In order to emphasise the abhorrent inquisitorial methods, Menocchio’s unorthodox ideas are first conveyed through the interrogation of other people in the village, while the sacrament of penance and confession is also used as a tool to root out heresy. Strangely, Menocchio’s story is taken up to that moment when, under the pressure of the inquisition and his relatives, he recants. By stopping short of the point where he chose to remain faithful to his ideas and face death, the film lacks that concluding portrayal of sacrifice which made The Passion of Joan of Arc such a powerful plea for freedom of conscience.

If Menocchio takes inspiration from the art of painting, Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz (winner of the Festival’s Special Mention) springs from the director’s love for photography. It is an autobiographic film, in the tradition of kitchen sink drama, which expands his previous work involving photography of his parents and younger brother into the realm of cinema. This could well explain his attention to revealing visual details, used to suggest the family’s disfunctionality, the characteristics of their social class and culture, and to anchor the action in the particular setting of 1980s Birmingham. The now destitute and alcoholic Ray remembers his life with Liz and their children Richard and Jason in two extended flashbacks. In spite of telling a story of misery and child neglect that sees the family hopelessly transitioning to life on an impoverished council estate, Billingham’s treatment of his parents remains non-judgemental until the end, when we witness an example of loving tenderness to which we are all invited.

In contrast with the grim urban landscape of Birmingham, in Abbas Fahdel’s Yara we are transported to Lebanon’s peaceful and bucolic Kadisha Valley: an Aramaic name which translates as Holy Valley. A place of breath-taking beauty and with a long history of Christian monasticism, it is not surprising that these features have shaped the film in a direction that was not perhaps initially intended. In an interview in the festival’s magazine, ‘Locarno Daily’, the director confessed that the valley is literally and symbolically a prison from which Yara, the young protagonist, cannot escape: a prison that paradoxically resembles a paradise. Fahdel skilfully imparts this paradisiacal quality not only spatially but also temporally, impressing a slow and repetitive rhythm to Yara’s daily routine as if the passing of time were of no importance. So charming and innocent a love like the one we witness between Yara and the young man Elias who visits her, cannot surmount the pull of the modern world, as he decides to follow his family’s decision to migrate to Australia. A tragedy resonates in the background of this place of peaceful bliss, of which the icons and the sword on Yara’s bedroom wall, as well as the forsaken monastery on the opposite side of the valley are a constant reminder: a home and refuge for Christian monastic communities over centuries, it is now losing its inhabitants at an alarming rate to emigration and conflict, sharing the fate of many other endangered communities in the Middle East. But as long as people like Yara and her ever prayerful grandmother (the actress is a real inhabitant of the valley) remain there is still hope that life in the valley will survive another generation.


When a Festival ends one takes home many memorable things that made it special alongside the films: the passionate deliberations of the Jury (which this year combined a wide range of perspectives: Protestantism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Christian atheism), the inspiring ecumenical service, the fellowship of the ecumenical reception, the fascinating discussions with the winning directors, the magnificent open air screenings in the Piazza Grande, and most importantly the renewal of old friendships and the making of new ones.